100 Cupboards (Book 1) by ND Wilson, 289 pp, RL 4
ND Wilson wins the award for the creation of the best fantasy creature you might actually like to have as a pet, the raggant, as does Jeff Nentrup, for bringing it to life with his painterly talents. Sort of a thinking girl's unicorn, the raggant looks like a chubby, cuddly baby rhinoceros with wings and is used sort of like a homing pigeon or a bloodhound. Raggants are sent to find someone and can only do this once as a raggant stays with the person it finds until it dies, never letting anyone see it fly. And it eats cat food. Since the main character of 100 Cupboards, Henry York, is not united with his raggant until the end of the story, I can't tell you if it grows to the size of an adult rhinoceros, but perhaps that question is answered Book 2 in the series, Dandelion Fire. And, I have read that this is to be a trilogy, although I could not confirm that on the author's website. Besides having a really cool new magical animal in it, 100 Cupboards has one of the best maps in a fantasy book I have seen in a while. The illustration is not a map of a fantasy realm, magical city or underworld empire, but of the 99 doors of varying shapes and sizes that serve as portals to other times and places. Taken from the journal of Henry's grandfather, this map also includes notations for every cupboard that, in the best cases, tells where the door opens to, specific to the geography of the place, the name of the place and what time it is following, such as alternate past, yesterday, now, alternate future and so on. Sometimes the information in the journal is not complete...
But, before I delve further into the fantasy aspects of the story, I need to begin where ND Wilson begins, in Henry, Kansas. Wilson is a thoughtful writer who spends time giving shape to Henry as well as describing the geography of his new home town. His writing in "our world" is as engrossing and compelling as his descriptions of the "other worlds"and their inhabitants that come later. Wilson's writing reminds me a bit of one of Wendy Mass' characters or even Owen Birnbaum from Ellen Potter's amazing book SLOB. 100 Cupboards is a story that reveals itself slowly and, for the first few chapters seems almost like it might not be a fantasy at all. Henry York finds himself arriving in Henry, Kansas on a bus. He is spending the summer with his Aunt Dotty, Uncle Frank and their daughters, his cousins, Penelope, Henrietta and Anastasia. We learn that Henry's greatest, secret wish is to learn to play baseball. We also learn that Henry is just beginning to realize that his parents have forced him to live a very sheltered life and to fear everything. Henry slowly realizes that much of what he thinks of as normal - riding in a car seat, wearing a helmet in PE class and peeing sitting down are not typical of boys his advanced age (which I think is approximately ten years old, but I couldn't find it stated anywhere in the book.) Uncle Frank takes Henry under his wing immediately and the two spend some quality boy time together, which includes buying a baseball mitt and a switchblade knife at a rummage sale. Henry tries to fit in with his cousins and their play, but is used to being an only child. Despite this, he relishes the new life unfolding before him. Henry begins wishing that his parents, travel writers who have been kidnapped while bicycling through Columbia, would be freed and happy, but leave him to live out a more regular life with his relatives in Kansas. Even the old man in the purple bathrobe that Henry sees leaving the bathroom in the middle of the night doesn't seem to worry him.
As Henry has his first taste of soda, going on to consume several in short time span, and play baseball with the boys at a town picnic, you start to settle in to this small-town-boy-coming-of-age story until the plaster starts chipping off the wall above Henry's head while he sleeps one night. Using his new knife, he uncovers two knobs protruding from the wall. Fervently, Henry spends as much of the night as he can peeling away at the wall to see what is underneath. Eventually, and with the help of Henrietta, who hears him in the middle of the night, the two uncover 99 cupboards. The first one that Henry finds that seems to have activity going on behind it that resembles a post office box as viewed from the inside out. A warm yellow light glows from the other side and a pants leg passes by occasionally. After Henry and Henrietta have fiddled with the doors they could open without a key, two letters arrive for Henry. Warning letters. In addition to this, there is the small, black door in the bottom corner of the wall, one that Henrietta seems to be recklessly drawn to and one that causes Henry to be so seized with revulsion and fear when it's opened that he throws up. The mystery of the cupboards, where they lead to and how they got there slowly unravels over the last half of the book. Family secrets are revealed, journals and keys are found and a witch is struck down before the book ends. But, like Patricia Wrede's excellent first book in her new Frontier Magic Series, The Thirteenth Child, Wilson's 100 Cupboards is clearly a "Book 1." Characters and themes are introduced and questions are asked, but resolution comes only with future books. By the end of 100 Cupboards, you feel like you are on the verge of a much greater adventure that will present even more dangerous challenges for Henry, the Willis' and their neighbor and baseball champ, Zeke. And, maybe even a name for the raggant. However, this doesn't make the summer-stroll pace of the first part of the book any less enjoyable. Wilson's writing is so rich with detail, emotion and development of all of the characters, that you will enjoy stroll that takes you to the doorway to another world, another time and a place much bigger and more threatening than Henry, Kansas, even with the tornadoes.
Fortunately for all of us, Dandelion Fire, Book 2 and Book 3, The Chestnut King are both available in paperback. Also, for any of you interested in the musings of an interesting writer don't miss ND Wilson's blog, the link to which can also be found on his website. He just started a new category of posts titled, "Books From My Past," where he plans to write about childhood favorites that stuck with him, beginning with the amazing turn of the century artist, illustrator and author Howard Pyle!